Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Great Chasm

Scripture Lessons: 1st Timothy 6: 6-19 and Luke 16: 19-31, NT pages 79-80 Sermon Title: The Great Chasm Preached on September 25, 2016 I went into Walgreens Drug Store last Thursday morning. I was picking up some pictures they developed for me, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Walgreens on a Thursday morning but usually they’re a little short staffed so I was just standing there at the photo desk waiting for someone to help me with my pictures. I’m not always very assertive in these kinds of situations. I sort of freeze up afraid to ask for help, so I was just standing there looking around not wanting to trouble anybody, looking longingly at the pictures I was there to pick up with my name on them that I could see right there behind the desk and I wondered what would happen if I just went back behind the desk and grabbed them myself. That’s the direction I was moving in when a Walgreens employee walked up and she said, “Sir – are you authorized to go back there?” “Well, no, I guess I’m not,” I said, wondering what kind of authorization one would need to reach behind a desk to grab an envelope of pictures, but instead of challenging protocell I asked her if she would just reach back there behind the desk to grab my pictures. “They’re right on top of the stack,” I told her. “Sir, I’m not authorized to do that either,” she responded, which helped me to realize how many lines there are in this world, lines that maybe we need not be so afraid to cross. In our parable from the Gospel of Luke there is a gate. And at this gate lay a poor man named Lazarus. There was a rich man who lived inside the gate and while this rich man was dressed in purple and fine linen, Lazarus was covered with sores. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, and Lazarus longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. When the rich man died he was buried and had a proper funeral, but when Lazarus died no one was there but the angels of heaven. Now isn’t it amazing how different life can be depending on what side of the gate you live on? Purple and linen or sores that the dogs lick. Sumptuous feasting or hunger. Proper burial in the majestic cemetery or a hole in the potter’s field. And to open the gate? Well, am I authorized to do that? Rather than just opening the gate to meet our neighbor too often some of us wonder: can I just go from one side of this line to the other? Can I really just drive to the other side of the tracks? Can the guest at the ball just walk behind the bar, no longer a guest but a servant? Should a rich man open the gate to let in the man who sleeps outside? I believe that this is one of the most interesting challenges that we humans face, not because it takes some feet of physical strength to cross the gate, but because the pictures are right there behind the photo booth and I just stand there as though there were something more required than to walk around the desk to pick them up. I was just standing there, too afraid or something to cross the line and walk around the desk to grab my pictures at the Walgreen’s Drug Store on James Campbell Blvd. and while I was waiting for someone authorized to get those pictures from behind the desk for me I noticed all the stuff for sale right around where I was standing. I’m confident that part of the reason there wasn’t anyone back there at the photo desk was so that I’d have a little more time to look around and pick out some stuff that I don’t need, and that’s exactly what I did. Right next to the photo desk at the Walgreens on James Campbell is a display case full of clear Pepsi. That’s right. Clear Pepsi. And when the Walgreens employee who was authorized to take my photographs out of the plastic crate behind the desk finally showed up I held up that bottle of Clear Pepsi, and I said, “Can you believe this – Clear Pepsi,” but she wasn’t as impressed as I was, and I thought to myself, “Well just because you’re authorized to take photographs out from behind the desk doesn’t mean you have to act like you’re better than everybody.” But even though she wasn’t as impressed as I was, I went ahead and explained to her how great it was to have Clear Pepsi for sale, and did she remember the first time Clear Pepsi came out? “It was back when we were kids”, I said, but it turned out that she wasn’t even born when I was just a kid, and it hurts when you realize that about somebody, but that didn’t slow me down too much because I wanted to tell her about how my best friend Matt Buchanan and I were so amazed the first time we saw Clear Pepsi that Matt dropped a 2 Liter of it in the middle of the aisle at the Ingles Grocery Store and it exploded everywhere. That’s probably why I was so excited about the Clear Pepsi. It reminded me of my old friend Matt who, until last week, I hadn’t talked to since his wedding. Isn’t it amazing how long you can go without talking to people who you care about? And the miracle is that sometimes the gap made by so many years of not talking can be bridged all at once with nothing more than a phone call. When Matt Buchanan called me last week it was as though we picked right back up where we left off – dropping that bottle of Clear Pepsi in the middle of the aisle at Ingles. But of course, I have to be thankful to Matt, for it was he who called me. I’ve thought of calling Matt a million times and didn’t – probably because of the fear that the gap couldn’t be bridged. I did his wedding, but have never called to wish him a Happy Anniversary and that starts to cause a gap. He’s had birthday parties, but I didn’t make it down for any of them and that makes the gap grow. There have been pregnancies and babies, and when I see pictures of those babies on Facebook I can’t believe how much I’ve missed out on. Each year that goes by, it’s like the gap grows and the chances of bridging that gap grow less and less likely in my mind – which makes sense for me because I’m too often the kind of person who sees lines too well and pays too much respect to division – I just stand there looking longingly at my developed pictures, waiting for someone who is authorized to bridge the gap between me and them but Matt is the kind of person who just picks up the phone and in doing so he bridged that gap in an instant. Part of the point that Jesus so brilliantly illustrated in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus is that the gate can be opened – the line can be crossed – and we should never mistake a gap that can be bridged for a chasm that cannot because if you wait too long to pick up the phone the gap that could have been bridged will turn into a Chasm that is fixed. The parable begins with a rich man dressed in purple and fine linen – and Lazarus, skin covered in sores. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day – and Lazarus longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. The rich man died and was buried – and Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham, and in the afterlife with the rich man in Hades where he was being tormented he looked up and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus by his side and he called out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from here to us.” This is a parable that is certainly about a rich man and a poor man and all that divided them on earth. One was dressed in purple, the other dressed in sores. One feasted sumptuously, the other longed for crumbs that fell from the table. One died and there was a proper funeral, and when the other died there was no one there but the Angels of Heaven and with this contrast between the reality of the rich and the reality of the poor we are pushed to consider that while there may be between one and the other a gap or a fence or a wall, you must not pay any credence to these divisions that can be crossed or “the great chasm” will be fixed and we may find ourselves on the wrong side. On one side of town is a bank, and on the other is a place where you can get your check cashed. On one side of town is a grocery store, and on the other is a convenience mart. On one side of town one kind of people live and on the other side of town is where the other kind of people live and today Jesus is calling on all of us to do everything we can to walk over to the other side while we have the chance for no authorization is required. Here we are at First Presbyterian Church and there’s even one kind of people on one side of the parking lot and another on the other side – and every day we are given the chance to bridge the gap and so many people do. Many of you know who Melvin Taylor is. Our church secretary Renea Foster certainly does, and because he’s a man without a home and without a people to care for him, she brings him ibuprofen for his arthritis and a little pink pill for his heart ever morning. She washes his clothes and she helps him with his groceries and last Tuesday as Renea was waking up after dental surgery, the anesthesia just starting to wear off, the nurse went to her and asked her if her husband was out in the lobby waiting and Renea said, “Yes and his name is Melvin Taylor.” Now maybe that’s bridging this divide a little too much, but I believe we all need to put some thought into this parable, for in the life to come Renea will be sitting right over there with Melvin, so far they have come to build an unlikely friendship that is like a bridge over so many divisions. And Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Luke is big on bridging this divide between rich and poor. There’s no denying it. It is in chapter 18 that he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” and we need to sit down and think about these words and just what it is about wealth that Jesus thinks is so bad, and probably the best explanation is that of New Testament Scholar Dr. Charles Cousar who said that wealth causes blindness. So it’s not just asking the question of the rich man, “How many chances did you have to help out poor Lazarus? How many nights did you go to sleep with a stomach ache while he went to bed empty? How much money did you spend while he didn’t have two pennies to rub together” for the much greater question is, “Did you even see him out there sleeping by your gate?” or had wealth and privilege so clouded your vision that you couldn’t see that he had hands like your hands, skin like your skin, hopes like your hopes, and a heart like your heart? You see, this isn’t some kind of socialist, bleeding heart liberal parable here that Jesus is offering us today – this is a simple parable about speaking to the people who are around you so that you’ll realize that the lines which divide us are lines that we allow to divide us. This is a parable about bridging gaps – and these are not the kinds of gaps that we need any authorization to bridge – and these aren’t the kind of gaps that we need some big speech about – we don’t need a monologue about politicians reaching across the aisle – this is a parable about Jesus telling you to walk across the street. These are the kinds of gaps that the preacher who did your premarital counseling was talking about when she told you to never go to sleep while in a fight, because the fight creates a gap and the longer you go without bridging that gap the bigger the gap will grow until you’re on one side and she’s on the other and Abraham is saying “a great chasm has been fixed” and now there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s what the rich man had to face. He let the gap grow for too long and it turned into a chasm, so in desperation he calls out, “Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house – for I have four brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” But Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” and so should you – so should I – because the longer we go letting our social fabric tear by not getting to know the people who live right next door to us, the longer we go trembling in fear of racial difference that we re-segregate ourselves all over again, the longer we stay right in our tax brackets without making friends who make more money or less money than we do – the more divided will be our city, our nation, and our world – and do you want to know why our society is so divided now? Because we let it be. So just go behind the desk and get your pictures – you need no authorization. Just pick up the phone – your old friend wants to hear from you as much as you want to hear from him. Just open your mouth and say hello – for the longer you wait to speak the harder it is going to be. Just love your neighbor as you love yourself today – for the chasm is not yet fixed. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Quick to forgive the debt

Scripture Lessons: 1st Timothy 2: 1-7 and Luke 16: 1-15, NT page 208 Sermon Title: Quick to forgive the debt Preached on September 18, 2016 Well, that wasn’t very easy to understand. A parable about a dishonest manager who cheats his employer by reducing debts. And Jesus says, “You see that guy? Be like him.” Be like this man, so worried about losing his job and doesn’t want to end up digging a ditch for a living or begging on the street that he goes around to the people who owe this rich man money, who owe his employer money, in the hopes that one of them might take him in once he really gets fired. And there are two kinds of getting fired – there’s the kind of fired where you get to keep some dignity and there’s the kind of fired where you really go out with a bang! This guy knew what was coming down the pike. Chargers were brought against him “that this man was squandering” the rich man’s property, probably spending his bosses’ money on himself, and since he knew he was on his way out, why not go out with a bang, why not go around telling the rich man’s debtors that their debts have been reduced by 20% or 50%. I wish someone at First Farmers would do that. I’d take him in, but I haven’t been teaching our children to be like him. So it’s surprising to read in verse 8: “And his master commended the dishonest manager.” Why? I’ve been asking for help all week to understand this passage. Thank you to those of you who have helped me. Thank you to those who didn’t feel like you could help and so told me that you’d pray for me. After reading what the Bible Scholars have to say and after hearing some of your thoughts I am convinced that part of the wisdom that Jesus offers us in this parable has to do with the realization that this rich man wanted the debts to be forgiven more than he wanted the money. Finally, this manager who was on the brink of being fired for squandering the rich man’s property is commended because out of desperation and self-preservation he finally reduced those debts, and in so doing he finally did the thing that the rich man wanted him to do all along. You can imagine this happening – an employee failing to understand what his employer wants, because people misread such situations all the time. Years ago I was given some advice. A man told me that every boss really only wants one thing from his employees, and if you can figure out what that is and can manage to do it you’ll always be in good shape. The problem is, sometimes people think they have their boss figured out but they don’t. So maybe you work long hours because you think your boss wants you to work long hours, but instead of a pat on the back you end up in trouble because your boss hates to pay overtime. Or maybe you bake a dozen muffins for her birthday, only it turns out the boss has a gluten allergy. Sometimes we act as though people are one thing, and then we’re surprised by who they actually are. It’s like this story that I heard about a waitress at Bucky’s. She was walking down the beach and some young men approached her. “So what’s your name sweetheart?” they say. The Bucky’s waitress responds: “Well, my grandkids call me Nana.” Sometimes we act and speak to people with one image of who they are in our mind, only to find out that they aren’t who we thought they were and they don’t want what we thought they wanted. The same kind of thing happens with cats. Have you ever had a cat who really wanted to thank you, who really wanted to honor you for being such a great master and so the cat left a dead mouse for you at the front door? This act of kindness, much like the young men who propositioned the Bucky’s waitress, is based on a misunderstanding. The cat assumed something about you – the cat assumed that you like the kinds of things that he likes, that you are kind of like a bigger version of himself, and so in an effort to appreciate you he gives you the kind of gift that he would want to receive. He assumes that you love mice – because he loves mice - but you don’t. Now what does the dishonest manager think that the rich man wants? Like a cat who assumes that his master loves mice the manager assumes that the rich man loves money – that the rich man wants him to collect as much of the debt that he can, so only in disobedience, assuming that he’ll invite the master’s wrath does he go around reducing these debts when in reality, by doing so, he’s finally giving the rich man what he wanted all along. This is a funny thing – but it happens. And why? Why does it happen? Because the manager bases his understanding of the rich man in himself. Jesus is saying that sometimes those who serve a master fail to understand what their master wants because they assume that their master wants what they want, that their master loves what they love, and he makes this point to the Pharisees, those who represent God to the people and we read there in verse 14: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” “What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God,” because God isn’t just a bigger version of us. We can’t go assuming that God wants what we want or that God thinks the way we think. The Pharisees were trying to please God the way a cat tries to pleases his master – but God doesn’t care about the money that they brought any more than the rich man cared about collecting the debts in full, any more than a master valued the dead mouse his cat laid at his feet. What you think God wants is one thing – but what God actually wants is another. Now did you get all that? Are we starting to get somewhere with this difficult parable? Good – because I believe this passage has something really important to say to us. For one thing it makes clear the truth that sometimes we get God wrong, just as we get each other wrong. That happens with fathers. In some ways fathers are all alike – all fathers make dumb jokes. Just last Saturday Sara and I were at a small concert off the square. A singer songwriter type of thing, and Kara Huckabee from the Chamber of Commerce was there and she asked Sara and I, “Who’s watching the girls tonight.” I told her that our daughters were getting pretty old – 5 and 7, so we decided to just let the dogs keep an eye on them. Now that’s a dumb dad joke for you, but a few minutes later I was talking with Wil and Katie Evans. Their beautiful baby girl is just a few months old, so I asked, “Who is watching your baby while ya’ll are out on the town?” Wil said: “The dog is pretty well trained, so we just let him keep an eye on her.” Then, and this story is true. Then the songwriter and her husband get up on the stage and he starts talking about how they’ve been on tour for weeks and had to leave their two-year-old at home, but guess who’s watching him? “The dog,” he says. And maybe you think that you can get into the head of a dad because we make the same dumb jokes but for years my dad coached my baseball and basketball teams and I was sure that what he wanted was for our team to win and for me to run fast and hit hard and throw far so I tried my very best to give him those things that I thought he wanted. Like a cat who leaves a mouse outside his master’s door, like a manager who thinks that collecting debts in full is what the rich man wants, only to find that the master doesn’t eat mice, the rich man wants the debts forgiven, and my dad was just coaching those games so he could spend time with his son. Do you know how much better life can be if we understand each other? How many times did I beat myself up for striking out imagining that I was embarrassing my father who was there watching when all he wanted was to be there with me. And how many hours do we waste agonizing over debts owed to our Father in Heaven, imagining some bigger and more powerful version of our own selves – a strict task master, a miserly rich man, a harsh judge who wants punishment – when instead, here Jesus is saying that if God is like a rich man then rejoice – for all this rich man wants is for the debt to be forgiven and for the debt to be forgiven as quickly as possible. Why then do people imagine a God who reigns from heaven in wrath? With fire and brimstone and hell and damnation? Maybe it’s because the manager assumed that the rich man valued the same things that the manager valued – and the Pharisees of old like too many of the preachers of today assume that God values the same things that they value. So even while what God wants is a debtor out of debt – a relationship restored – the preacher wants a pound of flesh and a bunch of guilt, and if I’m ever going to forgive you than I’m going to make you hurt a little bit first. If you’ve ever been to that church than its time to realize that this way of thinking says more about the manager than it does the rich man. It says more about the cat than it does the master. This way of thinking says more about the preacher than it does the God who he is preaching about because God is far more quick to forgive the debt than we are – even though the money is all his. What does God want? The debts forgiven, for God values you more than God values the money. But what do we want? Sometimes. Too often it’s the money so if we are to be more like God, if our standards are to live up to God’s standards, and if we want to please our master than we have to listen to Jesus and Jesus says, “be like that dishonest manager – use that money to make friends,” don’t let it get in the way of friendship. Use the money to bring the family together – don’t let money fuel conflict when the will is read. We even let money get in the way of happiness for “No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” and if you try – if you value money more than family or friendship – there is no need for God to punish you, for you will create for yourself your own hell. Money can’t buy happiness, and anyway – it comes and it goes, so let us all use what we have been given to build up what truly matters in the eyes of God – family, friendship, and love. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why do Pharisees grumble?

Scripture Lessons: 1 Timothy 1: 12-17 and Luke 15: 1-10, NT page 78 Sermon Title: Why do Pharisees grumble? Preached on 9/11/16 This is a familiar lesson from the Gospel of Luke. You probably know about the Good Shepherd who searches for one lost sheep as this is one of the most beautiful images that the Bible has to offer. In the Narthex of the last church I served, a church called Good Shepherd Presbyterian is a painting of a lamb, lost and afraid, tangled in brambles, and there are the hands of Christ comforting this lamb, ready to take him home. The image is in Sunday School rooms throughout the country too. Pictures of Jesus with a little lamb across his shoulders, and I think maybe we like this image and relate to it because so many of us feel like lost sheep. We can understand why all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus – it’s because he is the Good Shepherd who sought us out when we were lost, untangled us from the brambles, laid us on his shoulders and rejoiced that he found us. It’s a beautiful image, and it offers us a true and accurate picture of who God is and what God does, but this Scripture Lesson titled in our pew Bibles as “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” isn’t directed at those who would identify with the lost sheep or the lost coin, this Scripture Lesson is directed to the Pharisees and the scribes who were “grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinner and eats with them.”” That’s what prompts the two parables of Jesus that we just read, so I ask you to ponder with me the question: “why do Pharisees grumble?” For some back up information let me help you clarify in your minds who Pharisees are. In the Gospels there are three groups of religious villains who irritate Jesus: the scribes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. The scribes aren’t that bad, they’re just around, because in a society where not many people knew how to read or write, where there weren’t computers or typewriters, people who had authority and things to say needed scribes to write it down. It’s not bad to be a scribe – the Apostle Paul had scribes to help him write his letters too, and so every important figure and every figure who thought he was important had scribes around from time to time. The Sadducees on the other hand had a particular belief system that they wanted to defend. They were Jews just like the Pharisees were Jews, but in addition to irritating Jesus they also liked to irritate the Pharisees and the Pharisees liked to irritate them. Just as there are different denominations of Christians today, in Ancient Israel at the time of Jesus there were different kinds of Jews who believed a little bit different from each other and here’s the thing about the Sadducees that made them different from the Pharisees – the Sadducees didn’t believe there would be an afterlife. Moses never mentioned an afterlife so they didn’t believe there would be one and that prompted their questions to Jesus – it was the Sadducees who went to Jesus in the 20th chapter of Luke and said: “Teacher, there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally, the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?” That’s some question – and for them, any answer would have been wrong because they didn’t believe in an afterlife any way. So here it is – the Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife, so they were Sad – you see? And the Pharisees – they loved the Law of Moses laid out in the first 5 books of our Bible and they loved interpreting those first 5 books of the Bible so traditions developed and those Pharisees loved holding people accountable to those laws and traditions because they believed that God would reward those who followed the Law and that God would punish those who broke the Law, so in short the Pharisees loved the law, so they were Fair – you see? You learn that kind of thing in seminary. The Sadducees were sad and the Pharisees were fair and you wouldn’t think that there was anything wrong with being fair, but any parent of siblings can tell you that an obsession with fairness can be as great a burden to bare as any. You’ve seen it: “Dad, can I have a piece of candy?” “No. No candy, we’re about to eat supper,” dad responds, but before the words are even out of his mouth completely – “But my sister had a piece of candy and mama said that she could eat it so this isn’t fair!” Fairness becomes a burden – because if someone has something that you don’t you feel angry – but the inverse is also true sometimes. If you have something that someone else doesn’t maybe you feel happy. The bug man comes out to the house and you feel embarrassed – and I mean you really worry about what he’s going to think of you when you tell him that roaches have been getting into your kitchen, so he makes you feel better by saying, “that’s nothing. Your neighbor has the biggest rat infestation I’ve ever seen” and when you hear that maybe you feel a little happy. Do you know what I’m talking about? When life is too much about keeping score, thinking too much about how the ones who follow the rules will be rewarded and the ones who don’t will be punished than the sick part of me who is insecure about my failures and shortcomings starts to take a little comfort in the failings and shortcomings of others. Like life were a race – and I don’t have to win the race – but I sure don’t want to finish last, so I take a little bit of comfort in the people who are behind me. And that’s true. Listen to this. Years ago we were running a race in Atlanta. It was 13 miles and I had no interest in running after about the 10th mile so I started to walk, but just as I slowed down I saw this lady running with a cane – and she was ahead of me. Now I didn’t need to win that race – but I sure couldn’t get beat by a lady with a cane. For me to feel OK about me I had to be ahead of somebody, especially somebody who was running with a cane. I’m OK being among the 99, so long as I’m ahead of the one who is lost and maybe that’s why the Pharisees grumble. They’re closest to the finish line and when they finish they want God to be there to place that medal around their neck for running the race so well – but then Jesus tells them that God isn’t at the finish line. Guess where God is. Jesus says – “he’s back there with the lady who runs with a cane.” Is that fair? If you trained for the race you should get a medal, but where is God? Among the lame and the lost. And getting upset about that is a sickness you see. The Pharisees are sick in their fairness and all their keeping track of who is good and who is not and wondering “how good is she and how good am I?” That’s a question that judgmental people can’t help asking: “Am I as good as I should be?” “Have I been doing enough?” If the answer is “No” then you start to take comfort in hearing about the people who have done less. I don’t know what you did last Tuesday, but if you stayed off the front page of Wednesday’s paper than you did better than some, but here’s the catch – while the sick part of us loves to read the bad news that comes off the front page of Herald, Jesus would be combing the crime reports for the next person he’d be having dinner with. That’s why the sinners and tax collectors loved him – and that – I am convinced – is a big part of why the Pharisees grumbled. They grumbled because if nothing else, they thought they were at least better than them, but then God shows up and turns this economy of better and worse right on its head. The great southern author Flanner O’Connor tells it this way: In the doctor’s waiting room Mrs. Turpin’s “little bright black eyes took in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation…Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people [according to her]; then next to them – not above, just away from – were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she [and her husband] Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land” and so she took inventory of the doctor’s waiting room and realized that she was not ahead of everybody because there was a stylish woman seated to her right who probably had plenty of money and land and a big ol house, but that was OK because Mrs. Turpin wasn’t at the bottom of the heap. The first time I read the story about her I thought she was awful, but then Sara was pregnant with Lily and she bought about 20 books on pregnancy and babies, and she read them all in about 3 days. She asked me to read just one – just one of those books with her, but I didn’t really want to, even though not reading the book made me feel like a horrible person who would be a half-rate father. But then one day I was in the waiting room for her doctor’s appointment, and I looked around, and whereas before I had felt like a half-rate father I just took inventory of that waiting room and noticed how many father’s to be had failed to show up as I had and so I started to feel a little bit better about myself, but now – now I think on this and realize how sick it can make us to keep score. To treat life like a race where some win and some loose. To keep count – keeping track of sins and wrongs and failures – because living like a Pharisee leads right into the worst kind of sickness where our hope is that the lost should just stay lost – for how will I know that I’m found if all are found? The low should just stay low – for how will I know that I’m high if all are lifted up? The weak should just stay weak – because I want to be strong. The last should just stay last – because I don’t have to be first but I sure want to finish in front of somebody. Jesus turns this way of thinking on its head – not just by being at the end of the race with the lame instead of the finish line, not just by eating with the ones who end up on the cover of “Just Busted” rather than looking down his nose at them, but also for choosing a teenage girl to be his mother so that he could redeem you and me – making the path to salvation, not a race that we can win but a gift given by the God who doesn’t keep score the way we do. Thanks be to God; God doesn’t keep score the way we do. We have to remember these things. On this anniversary of September 11th, remembering one of the worst tragedies in this nation’s history we have to remember these things because it is too easy to think on those who have and would do us wrong and not come close to rejoicing should they be found. To live as Christ lived, to follow where he leads, we must be prepared to rejoice whenever there is the chance of forgiveness or the hope of redemption – for we are called again and again not to judge but we do, and the Lord invites us again and again to celebrate but the Pharisees grumble instead. Let us remember then, the God of grace, the Good Shepherd who sought us out when we were lost, untangled us from the brambles, laid us on his shoulders and rejoiced that he found us. Let us remember the God of Grace, for God is not nearly so interested in fairness or punishment as we sometimes are. God just wants us and all his other children to come home. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Onesimus the Useful

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 18: 1-11 and Philemon, NT pages 215-216 Sermon title: Onesimus the Useful Preached on 9/4/16 It’s not every day that we get to read an entire book of the Bible, but if there’s a book of the Bible that ever could be read from beginning to end in one worship service it’s this one that makes up our 2nd Scripture Lesson, Philemon. Just one chapter long, in our Bibles it spans just two pages, and there are really only three human characters to keep track of: The Apostle Paul, a slave named Onesimus, and the slave’s owner Philemon. The plot is simple enough too – Onesimus the slave ran away to follow Paul, who as you know traveled from place to place preaching the Gospel and starting new churches. Either he started the church that met at Philemon’s house or he was just a guest, but when Paul came to town the slave Onesimus was so captivated by the Gospel that the Apostle preached that he ran away from home and from his owner. Paul, who is writing the letter, feels like he needs to send Onesimus back to his owner, and so he addresses this letter to Philemon for Onesimus to carry back as he returns. In this scenario it is Onesimus who takes the greatest risk. Paul, a Roman Citizen, is in a position of relative safety compared to this slave Onesimus even though it would seem Paul is writing from prison, and Philemon, a Christian, but also a man wealthy enough to own a slave and a house big enough to hold church in has little to lose and may in fact be regaining his human property as Onesimus journeys back home – so it’s Onesimus who interests me the most because while this letter demands something of both Paul and Philemon – Paul has to stick his neck out to speak for the slave and Philemon is being asked to be gracious, it’s really Onesimus who is being thrown in the deep end of the pool. And no one really wants to get thrown into the deep end of the pool. When we first moved here our oldest daughter Lily was of the age for swimming lessons, so we asked around a little bit about where we should go. Everybody had their opinion, as swimming lessons are serious business, and some people would say that you really need to go see Bert and Margret Hewgley. That if you want her to learn how to swim you need to go see Bert and Margret Hewgley, but we also heard that what Bert would do is tear open the door to the mini-van, pull your screaming child out with one arm, tell the child’s mother to look the other way as he threw mama’s baby girl into the deep end of the pool. Now today I know that this story is not in fact true, but we signed up for lessons with Gail Moore anyway, because getting thrown into the deep end is scary. It’s something like how I took Spanish Lessons in High School and College but then I got off the plane in Argentina and “donde esta el bano” only got one of my immediate needs met. Or getting thrown into the deep end is something like what happens to new members of our church. Some people have walked into this church for the very first time, very first time they’ve been in a church in years, and I’ll be talking with them in the hall way one day and the next – they’ve signed up to join the bell choir and serve on the Diaconate and they’re inviting their friends to church, and part of me wants to celebrate and the other part of me wants to calm them down – “Wait a minute – don’t just jump into the deep end!” But that’s how we learn to swim. That’s how we learn to trust. After my second year of seminary we were all asked to take an internship as a chaplain, but I didn’t want to go to a hospital, I signed up for the Metro State Women’s Prison. Now this wasn’t like our County Jail which is intimidating enough – the Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta, GA is a maximum security prison with a 20-foot fence and a network of buildings just as cold and bare as February. Our supervisor sent me to speak to a group of women up on the second floor of this residential building, and each floor had about 20 women in it – about 20 women to every one officer, and the officer’s weren’t walking around, they were supervising from the safety of this room in the middle and just looked out on all the women incarcerated using cameras. So I walked the stairs up to this floor with 20 women on it basically all by myself. The guards were just watching, and I’ve never really known what it was to have a lot of female attention all at once, so let’s just say that the absence of any men in the lives of these women for who knows how long made me more attractive than I have ever been, but the whistles and cat calls didn’t make me feel like a group of nice ladies were desperate for my phone number, it made me feel like a pack of wolves were about to eat me for breakfast. However, once I got up there I heard this 90 pound girl sing – and she sang, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” Some people think you have to be strong to have faith. That strength and faith are the same. That being determined and having grit is a lot like being faithful but I’m not so sure because faith has so much to do with our weakness and God’s strength. So God called Jeremiah the prophet down to the potter’s house in our First Scripture Lesson, and there “he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him,” and the Lord said, “Look, I am a potter…. Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” Faith is like accepting the truth that we are clay – we are clay – and so the children sing that “we are weak but he is strong” – they sing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” so I don’t need to pretend that I do. Faith is about release you see. So the great Henri Nouwen, who has written many books on spirituality, is famous for having described the embodiment of faith as souring through the air on the flying trapeze. Faith as entrusting your life to the one who has promised to catch you before you fall. He tells this story of interviewing Rodleigh, the flyer in a trapeze troupe: “One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, 'As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.' 'How does it work?' I asked. 'The secret,' Rodleigh said, 'is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.' " 'You do nothing!' I said, surprised. 'Nothing,' Rodleigh repeated. 'The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It's Joe's task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe's wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.' Nouwen continues: "When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, the words of Jesus flashed through my mind: 'Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.' Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying is to say, 'Don't be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don't try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.' " Whether it be in death or in life, again and again we are thrown right into the deep end of the pool, and so it makes sense to me that so often my muscles knot up and anxiety grips my soul – but today let us think on the example of the slave Onesimus. His name is Greek – it means useful – and for us, here in the 21st Century, his example is indeed useful, for he is flying through the air, armed only with a letter, and yet we see him release trusting that he will be caught. Trust, trust, trust. Amen.